Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

Earlier this year, the media was full of stories recognizing and educating Americans about the Tulsa race massacre. Although the destruction of Greenwood (or Black Wall Street) was a particularly horrifying instance of racist violence, it was far from isolated. Many other Black communities were destroyed in the early 20th century. Eight years before Tulsa, Black farmers owned land and built homes and churches in Forsyth County, Georgia, near Atlanta. Many were barely scraping by, but some were quite prosperous. And then, after two white women were attacked (and one eventually died), the white community set fire to Black residents’ homes and churches and “Night Riders” patrolled the area, threatening any Black residents or landowners who tried to stay.

Patrick Phillips, the author of Blood at the Root, moved to Forsyth County when he was still in elementary school in the 1977. And the community was still all white. Phillips was told stories about the history, and his family were even among the handful of white Forsyth residents who joined a protest march in 1987, but he didn’t learn the details until much later. This book tells the story.

Phillips describes the attacks on the two white women that led up to the violence, making clear how little evidence there was against the men eventually identified as the guilty parties. No surprise there to anyone who has read much about racist violence in this era. He also discusses the tension between the legal system and the community’s desire for immediate judgment in the form of lynching. One man was lynched, and two others were tried, convicted, and executed in public. No other guilty party was ever found, but the story Phillips tells makes clear that these deaths were not the result of careful investigation and weighing of evidence. And, what’s more, these deaths were not enough.

Most of the book is devoted to the events of 1912 and the immediate aftermath. But he also spends time on the more long-term effects, such as the many decades when Black people knew not to pass through Forsyth County, the total lack of a Civil Rights movement in Forsyth because there were no Black residents, and the years of silence about what happened until the 1980s. When activists sought to bring the events into the light in 1987, the reaction was, sadly, predictable. The people of Forsyth claimed to have no objection to Black people in general, but they had a right to keep their community white if they wanted to, and they certainly didn’t want their community to become like Atlanta, a “rat-infested slum.”

Black people did gradually start to move to Forsyth. Phillips speculates that many of the first to do so were from elsewhere and didn’t know the history. They were just looking for a good home in a prosperous Atlanta suburb. Still, when this book was published in 2016, Black people made up only 3% of the county population. The county had more Asian (8%) and Latinx (10%) residents than Black ones.

I think a lot of white Americans, at least of my generation, were taught about racism in America, even in the relatively recent past, but for some reason, stories like this, of mass violence and community dissolution didn’t get told. I tended to learn more about arcane rules that were often presented as inconveniences and indignities or, perhaps, isolated acts of violence by a few bad actors. It’s important, though, to know that it was bigger than that. It sickens me to know that there are people out there who do not want stories like this to be told. But it is only by knowing these stories that we can understand how these things happen and have a chance of stopping them from happening again.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

This summer, I’ve been catching up on past Tournament of Books contenders that readers in the Goodreads group selected as favorites but that I hadn’t gotten around to reading. One of these is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which seemed to be everywhere in 2012. It’s the story of the brilliant outsider architect Bernadette Fox, who moved to Seattle with her family and disappeared from the architectural scene to become a mom (and, if her neighbors and fellow moms are to be believed, a menace).

The story is mostly told through emails and documents collected by Bernadette’s teenage daughter, Bee. Together, these documents paint a picture of an extremely unpleasant community of very rich people who care too much about their reputations and about what other people are up to and show little self-awareness or empathy. And that includes Bernadette, who appears to be wrongly hated by the community, but also appears entirely wrapped up in herself. It becomes clear that a lot of what’s going on with Bernadette has to do with undiagnosed mental illness, which is deserving of compassion, but she also seems like she was unpleasant to be around when she was more functional.

I almost gave up on the book halfway through because I was so thoroughly fed up with every single person in it, except for Bee, who I didn’t object to, but who also didn’t have much personality beyond being smart. I don’t necessarily need to like fictional characters to enjoy books about them, but there has to be something pleasant for me to hang onto. In this case, it was the epistolary format and the fact that I couldn’t figure out precisely where this train wreck of a community was heading that kept me reading. I was interested.

It turns out that as the book goes on, some of the characters develop a little more self-awareness. And the book continues to take some unexpected turns. The plot gets bigger and sillier, even as its treatment of the characters’ struggles becomes more sensitive. The unpleasantness fell away, and only the things I liked were left.

This is the kind of book that I’m unlikely to ever consider a favorite. I’m just not so easily attached to big goofy contemporary stories about broadly drawn characters. If I’d read it in 2012, I might have rolled my eyes at the hype. But now I’m able to see it as an enjoyable enough book to spend a few days with.

Posted in Fiction | 11 Comments

In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins

It’s been a while since I read a big serious theology book. Back when I was taking seminary classes, I read this kind of thing all the time, but now I tend to read books that are written for a more general audience or that are more devotional in nature. I hardly even know how to approach more academic texts anymore, I’ve had this modern classic of Biblical scholarship by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza on my shelves for a while and decided around Easter to start making my way slowly through it — a chapter or even half a chapter per week — taking notes as I go in hopes that some of the learning would seep in and stay. Maybe some of it did.

The “her” in the title is the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Matthew and Mark, about whom Jesus said, “What she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What’s remarkable about that is that in both Matthew and Mark, the woman remains unnamed, although she is identified as Mary of Bethany in John’s gospel. And Mary of Bethany eventually becomes identified with Mary Magdelene. The lacked of clear identification and possible collapsing of women’s identities, never mind that the act of anointing and Mary Magdelene both become associated with sexual sin, despite a lack of textual evidence, shows that the memory of this woman, indeed of all women in the early church, hasn’t been particularly well preserved.

So Fiorenza makes it her task to pull apart what the Bible actually says about women in Jesus’s lifetime and the early years of the church, set it against what is known about women’s lives at the time and against written records outside the Bible. The idea is that the Bible is by its very nature, androcentric (i.e., focused on men’s perspectives), and the interpretive tradition even more so, which means some digging is required to give a fuller account of women’s lives. And these investigations show that women were heavily involved in the church from the very beginning, sometimes taking on leadership roles and providing financial support. She describes some of the tensions within the early church, many of which influenced the writing of the Bible and the selection of books to be included, and considers different interpretations of the Biblical passages used to subjugate women.

One of the things I liked about this book is the deep respect Fiorenza shows for the Bible without treating it as an object of worship. I grew up and spent much of my early adulthood in the more conservative wing of the Baptist church, where the assumption is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and must be taken literally. And once I discovered more progressive strands of Christianity, within and outside the Baptist church, I also saw a tendency to just want to excise the hard passages and everything associated with them. For example, there’s an idea that Paul is no good at all because of the admonitions within some of this letters that women are to submit to their husbands or be silent in church. Fiorenza writes in a way that doesn’t necessarily excuse the writers of such passages, but instead opens the doors to possible gaps between the declarations in these verses and actual practice in the church of the time. She treats the writers and compilers of the Bible as actual people living and being within a particular context, surrounded by other people, within and outside the church, with their own ideas that may or may not have affected what made it into the Bible and what the church actually did in practice.

Of course, any attempt at reconstructing a history of events that took place 2,000 years ago will be speculative, and I suspect Fiorenza got some things right and some things wrong. That’s the work of doing history. The value here is her rigorous approach to opening the doors to other ways of viewing the time of the early church, taking the focus off Paul and Barnabas and Silas and thinking about the early house churches or the widows who mentored younger women or the women prophets who shared their gifts. These women are all there, right there, in scripture, but forgotten in the focus on the men and what some of them eventually decided women couldn’t do. And remembering their stories is valuable not just for women but for anyone who wants to see a church that is less interested in enforcing hierarchy and more interested in unity and mutuality.

Posted in History, Nonfiction, Religion | Leave a comment

The Magic Toyshop

I didn’t expect a novel by Angela Carter called The Magic Toyshop to actually be about a whimsical happy place of magical toys and childhood joys, but I also didn’t really expect this book to be as dark as it turned out to be.  And I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. It’s unsettling.

When the novel’s main character, 15-year-old Melanie, is suddenly orphaned, she and her younger brother and sister are sent from their comfortable country home to live in London with their uncle, a toymaker named Philip. Philip runs his squalid household with a tight fist, keeping close control over his mute wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Finn and Francie. The household finds little bits of joy in music, but mostly every moment is managed by Philip, who only takes joy in creating puppet shows. (A metaphor that is maybe too on the nose.)

In the midst of this, Melanie is coming to terms with her own sexual maturity, and this process comes wrapped up in her realization that 19-year-old Finn is attracted to her. He makes some small attempts to become Melanie’s defender against Philip, but Philip’s power over Finn — and the whole household — is strong, so Melanie gets pulled into Philip’s plots in upsetting and potentially traumatizing ways.

The novel ends with a major cataclysm, a result of the characters taking back just a tiny bit of freedom. But, here, the story fell apart for me. Up to that point, I was moderately interested, mostly because of the creepy atmosphere and the puppets. But then there’s a revelation and a disaster with tremendous implications that just pop up — and then the book ends. The revelation about the nature of the relationship between two of the characters seems there mostly to infuriate Philip. And although it makes for a good Gothic twist, it felt underutilized and almost arbitrary, there for shock value.

Even more disturbing is the likely fate of one of the characters in the midst of the closing disaster. It felt like the character had been forgotten entirely, and when the character is mentioned, it also feels arbitrary, there to show he wasn’t forgotten, but also wasn’t much cared about narratively. This could actually make for a good character moment, but there’s zero reflection about it.

In essence, the ending felt extremely rushed, and although I wouldn’t necessarily want the thematic relevance of these closing events spelled out, I wanted more acknowledgement of what was actually happening. The characters seems to be thinking about all the wrong things, which is fine if their misplaced priorities had been well established, but I’m not sure it was.  In fact, the narrative seemed have the same mixed up priorities as the characters, and that left me unsettled in the wrong way.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

Klara and the Sun

Klara, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest novel, is a solar-powered artificial robot friend who, as the novel begins, spends her days in a store for AFs, waiting for some child to come along and choose her. Each model of AF is known for specific qualities, and although Klara’s generation is not the most advanced generation and is known to have some minor power issues, it is also programmed to be more empathetic than AFs of later generations. And this proves to be an important quality when Klara is chosen by Josie, a preteen girl with chronic health problems.

Klara’s job as an AF is to keep Josie company and provide emotional support. In her commitment to the job, Klara also comes to want to help Josie with her illness, perhaps enlisting the aid of the Sun who powers and gives life to everything, something Klara feels within herself and observed from the shop window. And so she forms a plan.

One of the things I love about Ishiguro is that he tells books that seem straightforward on the story level, but that have complex characterizations and lots of emotional depth. To make a robot the emotional core of the story might seem to stretch his abilities, but Klara is fully convincing as a person with her own drive and desires. Her motivations may be programmed in, but she shows enough independent thought and feeling to make her desires matter. I wanted her to succeed because it would make her happy, not because it would be good for the humans around her.

Thinking about this book in comparison to The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, I find myself pondering the ideas of independent thought and motivation. Stephens the butler is a born servant, who seems to have sublimated his own desires to be a servant. And the desires of the characters in Never Let Me Go are rendered almost irrelevant because of the state into which they are born. Like Klara, Stephens and Kathy exist to serve. How they differ in their attitudes about their state and how the book seems to treat them narratively would make for an interesting comparison.

In the case of Klara, a lot about her thinking makes her different status clear. She sees the Sun as God, which makes intuitive sense, given that she’s solar powered. Her ways of thinking are literal, yet there’s a poetry to the fact that she sees the Sun as having emotion. She has free will, but it’s all directed to serving Josie. The other characters acknowledge that she has free will, but only up to a point. She can be used and treated in ways that would be abominable for a human, yet even there she’s given some degree of choice. She’s both free and not. Stephens can resist but doesn’t, and Kathy tries but finds she can’t. For Klara, the desire to serve is rooted so deep in her programming that do anything else would make her someone else.

I loved reading about Klara and pondering how and why her life matters and how and why every life matters. I love that Ishiguro makes me think and care and wonder.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 11 Comments

No One Is Talking About This

For she had spent the last two years letting things sink in, and now . . . guess what, bitch! Further absorption was no longer possible! All day she drank in information, but no one was telling them the most important thing.

After finishing my review of The Seas, a couple of days ago, in which I complained about the lack of straightforward storytelling, I picked up No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I knew it might be a bad move. This book is all about the fractured thoughts inside the internet (or, as the narrator terms it, “the portal”). And it’s written almost like a series of tweets, as the narrator muses over what it’s like to be very online, and to be very famous online. Somehow, though, it completely worked. Maybe Twitter has rewired by brain to the extent that a book written like Twitter just runs seamlessly into my brain. Whatever the reason, this book was perfect for where I am right now.

In the first part of the book, the narrator writes in short, snappy paragraphs about the thoughts that go through her mind, many of them about the internet. She became viral for a goofy tweet (“Can a dog be twins?”), and now she’s someone people in the portal listen to. She’s learned to think like the portal, but she lives in the real world. Sometimes there’s a clash.

The second part is about a clash that pulls her out of the portal entirely. Her sister’s pregnancy goes disastrously wrong, and so months of hard and unfair decisions followed by all the big feelings of love and loss ensue. It’s all outside the portal, and it becomes the main thing. The second part retains the fractured style of the first, but the narrator’s thoughts are centered on this one thing.

There’s been a lot of talk for years about whether the internet is real life. Mostly, there’s no clear answer. The people on the internet are real. What happens between them is fed by and feeds into real life. So that’s enough for it to matter in some way. At the same time, I have personally found the internet more and more empty and unsatisfying in the last year or two. I’ve all but given up on Facebook (I only post on my Buy Nothing Group and a couple of others). I’m quiet on Twitter (though I lurk there too much). I browse fewer blogs. At some point, it all just became too much. Too much and not enough. I keep writing reviews here, but mostly because I like having that record. It’s not the social outlet it once was.

And I think that’s why this book hit me so perfectly. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Big Things lately. Life and death and relationships and what actually matters. I suppose the pandemic, the election, the insurrection, and so on, put many of us in a contemplative space. Plus, there are all the things we can’t or won’t talk about publicly. There’s so much outside the portal.

This is not me saying, “ooh, there’s a big, beautiful world outside the internet. Go meet a friend for coffee or take a walk and enjoy it.” Our relationships with each other and the world are mediated by technology. It matters. But maybe it’s something that matters differently at different times for different people.

She tried to reenter the portal completely, but inside it everyone was having an enormous argument about whether they had ever thought the n-word, with some people actually professing that their minds blocked it out when they encountered it in a book, and she backed out again without a word.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

The Seas

I used to consistently love books that kept me off balance, not quite sure what was real. That’s not so much the case lately. Just tell me a story. Still, I keep trying, hoping some weird story will capture my imagination. (And sometimes there’s a book like The Other Black Girl that mixes weirdness and straightforwardness in a way that totally works.)

I also keep trying with Samantha Hunt, whose books always sound great but never quite work as well for me as I’d like.

I’m also trying (largely in vain) to read books that have been on my shelves for years.

So that brings me to The Seas, a 2004 novel about a 19-year-old woman who lives by the sea and believes she is a mermaid. The story is told from this unnamed woman’s point of view, so we’re placed inside that reality, but we’re also able to see how her belief in her aquatic nature is wrapped up in grief over her father’s disappearance. So, too, is her attraction to Jude, an older man who she first saw emerging from the sea.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this didn’t work for me. I liked the ambiguity of the premise and how the question of her mermaidness played out at various points in the story. And I liked the ending a lot, as it showed her coming to some kind of terms with her situation, whatever it is. But the short book is busy with other stuff that didn’t work for me.

For example, I could understand her attraction to Jude, given his association in her mind with the sea, but a lot of the time it was difficult to grasp what their relationship was. This is a downside of that first-person perspective. The narrator’s grasp on reality is (probably?) tenuous, so readers must rely on context clues to understand what’s really happening. When it came to the mermaid question, I liked that I wasn’t sure, but I wanted the rest to feel more grounded than it was.

There were some cool set pieces, like the house that used to be an apartment building, and the trays of her grandfather’s typesetting letters. But they amounted to little more than set pieces, adding to the weirdness but not so much to the narrative. If it weren’t so short, I might have given up on it.

It’s possible that if I’d read this book years ago, when I enjoyed weird atmosphere for its own sake, I might have loved it. But it’s not quite right for me right now. Will I keep trying weird books like this? Probably. I want them to work, and they won’t if I don’t try.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

Earlier this year, I was completely swept up in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that led me to want to learn more, so I picked up this new biography (and winner of the 2020 National Book Award and 2021 Pulitzer) by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Les Payne had been working on the biography for years when he died in 2018, and his daughter, researcher Tamara Payne, completed the work.

The biography is built on interviews with people who knew Malcolm or who were involved or adjacent to events in his life. At times, the authors note where the historical record and interviews diverge from the Autobiography. Most of these instances were questions of emphasis, rather than massive differences in the factual record. None were so significant as to render the Autobiography unreliable, in my opinion. In fact, if you’re going to read only one book about Malcolm X, I’d recommend the Autobiography over this. The writing is better and the insights into human nature more profound. (I found the writing in this book sometimes too repetitive, and there were a few times where I though I might be seeing the seams between two authorial voices.)

Where this book excels is in putting Malcolm’s life in context and in shedding light on events that Malcolm was silent about. The context comes in the lengthy discussion of the founding of the Nation of Islam. Alex Haley’s technique in the Autobiography didn’t really leave room for this kind of analysis. Although we discover as readers how the Nation’s teaching diverge from traditional Islam along with Malcolm in the Autobiography, most of the critique centered on the actions of Elijah Muhammed, rather than on the entire belief system.

One of the most startling actions on the part of Muhammed which Malcolm doesn’t discuss but which the Paynes describe in some depth is the attempt to forge a partnership with the KKK. This began when the Klan approached Malcolm about meeting, a meeting that Muhammed encouraged in hopes that the Klan would help the Nation of Islam start their own separate state. The Paynes use this incident as a jumping-off point to discuss the differences between the Nation of Islam, which advocated racial separation, and Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, who advocated racial harmony. The Paynes suggest that this meeting, along with the revelations about Muhammed’s personal scandals discussed in the Autobiography, contributed to Malcolm’s disenchantment with his leader and his decision to leave the Nation. It is interesting that Haley and Malcolm did not include this in the Autobiography, but it may have been too recent and too explosive for the era.

The book also goes into more detail about Malcolm’s assassination than the Autobiography, for obvious reasons. A great deal about the assassination is still unknown, and the Paynes identify two men as assassins who were never arrested. This claim was not original to them, but I was surprised to see them naming names so bluntly (Even though the case against them is strong, it’s depicted here as a matter of historical record, rather than an alleged likelihood.)

Although I think Autobiography of Malcolm X is better as a work of literature, I appreciated how this filled in the gaps in my knowledge. It’s not a work of hagiography, but one that acknowledges the man’s remarkable gifts and sometimes serious flaws and puts his life in context.

Posted in Nonfiction | 3 Comments

The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has been an editorial assistant and the only Black woman at the prestigious publishing house Wagner Books when a second Black woman named Hazel joins the team, also as an editorial assistant and in a cubicle right across from Nella’s. Hazel is friendly and stylish and helpful, liked by everyone, except Nella, who soon begins to suspect that there’s no room for two Black woman. Whether it’s because the company won’t offer good opportunities to them both or because Hazel is sabotaging Nella’s chances isn’t clear. But Nella is getting the feeling that everything a Wagner is going wrong for her, and Hazel’s hiring is making things worse. Plus, there are the anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner.

One challenge of writing about The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is that a lot of what makes it interesting takes its time to reveal itself, and the surprise about what kind of book it turns out to be is part of the pleasure. The book’s premise and most of its plot is that of a socially conscious workplace comedy-drama. And it delivers in that area.

Harris’s critique of the whiteness of publishing felt authentic to me. Again and again, Nella tries to raise awareness about diversity on staff and in the books being published, and although the company claims to want to improve, they don’t want it enough to make actual changes. This is good stuff, worth thinking and talking about. And the fact that there are two Black women in the company who seem to have different perspectives on how to navigate these challenges, makes for some pleasing complications. This is all very good, but it’s not the most interesting thing about the book. What’s interesting is how Harris is bending genre.

The first clue that there’s something different going on here is in the book’s prologue, which is set in 1983 and follows a woman making an escape from some sort of scandal. From there, the book jumps to the main plot, set in 2018. Chapters are Nella are interspersed with short chapters back in following different Black women engaged in some mysterious activities, both in the 80s and in 2018, the nature of which do not become clear until near the end of the book. And here we see another genre at play, with a plot heavily indebted to some of the greats in that genre. (Although I don’t think what’s going on is a huge shock, as Harris provides the clues, naming the influences would give the whole game away.)

I enjoy seeing debut authors try doing something different and succeeding at it. Watching the pieces of the story come together here was great fun, more than I expected when I started.


Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments


This short novel by Sarah Moss is set in a park in Scotland where people can rent cabins or camp. It’s sort of shabby and run down, but people continue to come, sometimes year after year, to get away from their lives in Glasgow, Manchester … whereever. Except, as the novel shows, you can’t ever totally get away from yourself or other people.

There’s not much of a plot here. The book moves from character to character, showing a single day in the life of the park. So it starts with a woman going on a morning run, moves to a man whose trying to adapt old age with his wife, then to a young woman who’s maybe a little bored with her boyfriend’s efforts to achieve simultaneous orgasms, then to a girl playing on a rope swing. Slices of life. Sometimes you’ll see characters from one chapter popping up in another. And in between are little descriptions of the natural world where all of these people are coming together.

One of the things I loved about this book was the way it balanced each person’s solitude with the fact that they lived in community. Each person lives in their own head, having thoughts the people around them cannot and do not fully absorb. (Images of Don Draper during sex, to name an obvious example.) But they also exist together. They watch each other from a distance, and the sometimes bump up awkwardly against each other. Everyone is affected by everyone else, even if only in a small way.

Perhaps the biggest point of connection involves the Ukrainian family who host loud parties during the evening, annoying many of their fellow campers. In general, these “outsiders” are viewed with suspicion by the rest of the community, even if that suspicion is largely unspoken. Still, the attitudes of the adults trickle down to the kids, with some sort of curious and others downright mean.

The book is also suffused with a sense of dark foreboding. Many of the chapters show characters in danger, sometimes without being aware of it. Lots of people observe that the solitary runner is putting herself at risk. Paddling on the loch becomes perilous during a cold rain. Multiple near misses on this single day show how much on the edge of disaster we are, even if we don’t know it. The little nature vignettes show a world of life and death. And there are hints along the way that some sort of tragedy will happen before the day is over.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments